“Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed… and yet the menace of the years finds, and shall find me, unafraid.” Invictus, William Ernest Henly
The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander has thrown gasoline into the fire. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s wish for Iran to deescalate after the assassination is rather wishful thinking and betrays his lack of understanding of how Iran plays the game. Iran will retaliate and will retaliate hard. It is just a question of timing and where. With so many proxies in the Middle East including the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran is poised to launch counterattacks at a time and place of their own choosing.
The timing of the assassination is also suspect. American forces have had ample opportunity to kill him before because he was out there with the troops fighting wars in the trenches against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS but the U.S. never carried out any assassination attempt. Was Donald Trump following the playbook of former president Bill Clinton, who after he was impeached launched a barrage of missile attacks against an Al Qaeda group somewhere in the middle of the dessert in Syria? Was this an attempt to wag the dog to change the narrative instead of the impeachment of the president?
As loathsome General Soleimani was because of the numbers of kills he had with American troops and civilian personnel, General John Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump would have never countenanced such move. Mattis was known for his eagerness to go after Iran, but he also recognized that killing the highly popular, idolized Iranian general would be bad for America.
Sec. Mattis served as one of the guardrails that prevented Trump from making mistakes such this one. But he is no longer around and people now serving the president have shown blind loyalty to the president.
The Trump administration from the get go was hell bent in going after Iran. Trump’s first move was to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambition and ratcheted up the pressure by re-imposing crippling economic sanctions against Iran. But then, it didn’t really have any real discussions about renegotiating the deal other than demanding that Iran basically capitulate.
In response, Iran announced it will no longer abide by the JCPOA since the US was no longer a signatory. It then started stockpiling heavy water and low grade uranium to jump start its nuclear program. This past summer, the White House embarked on what it called “maximum pressure” to force Iran to the negotiating table. Instead, Iran created mayhem against US allies like bombing Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and attacking several oil tankers.
Iran’s economy is faltering because of the economic sanctions but Iran’s central bank managed to stabilize its currency and was able to start selling its oil through the illicit market. So despite the maximum pressure, Iran never showed any sign of backing down and has actually stood up to the Americans.
The attack in Kirkuk by an Iranian proxy that killed a US contractor and injured four American servicemen prompted US retaliation against the suspected military proxy and killed 25 of the Iran-backed militia. Days later, Iranian proxies in Iraq attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad. The attacked enabled the militia to breach the embassy and created quite a damage. Trump then deployed more American servicemen in the area to protect embassies in the Middle East.
Then, this assassination. The drone attacked near Baghdad airport also killed an Iraqi militia commander which will further complicate the American forces stay in Iraq as calls for US to get out of Iraq will become louder in the coming days. With this airstrike on Iraqi soil, America managed to make it easy for the Iraqi Parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution asking for foreign forces to leave Iraq.
Well, Iran has retaliated but in a rather calibrated fashion. Iran fired multiple ballistic missiles on Iraqi bases that houses US servicemen. There was no American casualty given the advance notice about the missile attack that was coursed through Iraqi sources. The message was that Iraq did not want to escalate the situation and the US floated the idea that Iran intentionally missed their targets.
There are several things here to unpack. First, the multiple ballistic missile attacks was Iran’s way of letting the West and its allies know that Iran has perfected their ballistic missile program. Particularly for Arab countries in the Gulf like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, or Qatar; Iran was basically warning them that they could easily be targeted and the US could not do anything much less stop it, just like what they just did.
Two, by deescalating, Iran prevented a shooting war with the US that it knows it cannot win. So in essence, Iran neutralized the situation but it did not mean their retaliation is over. They have multiple proxies in the area including Afghanistan and Africa. Their action also cautioned Europeans not to join Trump’s belligerence – and they have not heeded Trump’s call to coalesce with him.
Iran is clearly playing the long game while Trump is in it for the immediate benefit that might help him win reelection. But already, there are complications at a time when Trump’s impeachment trial is about to begin in the US Senate. The initial justification given for the assassination was that an imminent attack was being planned by General Soleimani. But in Trump’s fashion, he bragged about four embassies being target by Soleimani. The problem though is that none of the briefings that Trump’s cabinet men provided never mentioned the four embassies and that the embassies concerned were never warned of such imminent attack.
The justification for the assassination is now under a cloud of suspicion that it was made up which explains for the shifting explanations. Even some Republican senators were enraged by the shabby classified briefings they got. What this matter may turn out to be is still developing but the ghost of the lies used to justify the invasion of Iraq 16 years ago is again rearing its ugly head.
In the meantime, Iraq has asked the United States to start crafting a withdrawal plan that Trump refuses to do at least for now. Trump even threatened to sanction Iraq and make it pay for the bases especially the sprawling Green Zone, if it is forced to leave.
With many Shiite allies in the Iraqi government, the United States just escalated its timetable for departure from Iraq albeit under terms it may not like but will be forced to go through unless it wants to invite another round of attacks from these proxies that will eventually force public opinion to shift back home. ISIS stays in the wings while Turkey is poised to go after the Kurds that were once allies of the United States. Talking about history repeating itself.